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The Path without Suffering

The Korean Seon (Zen) master Venerable Pomnyun Sunim (법륜스님) wears many hats: Buddhist monk, teacher, author, environmentalist, and social activist, to name a few. As a widely respected Dharma teacher and a tireless socially engaged activist in his native South Korea, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim has founded numerous Dharma-based organizations, initiatives, and projects that are active across the world. Among them, Jungto Society, a volunteer-based community founded on the Buddhist teachings and expressing equality, simple living, and sustainability, is dedicated to addressing modern social issues that lead to suffering, including environmental degradation, poverty, and conflict.

This column, shared by Jungto Society, presents a series of highlights from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s writings, teachings, public talks, and regular live-streamed Dharma Q+A sessions, which are accessible across the globe.

The following teaching was given in Toronto on 16 September 2023. This article is the 16th in a special series taken from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s Dharma tour of Europe and North America—his first overseas tour since the pandemic. Titled “Casual Conversation with Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Come Talk about Life, Wisdom, and Happiness” the Dharma tour ran from 1–22 September 2023, taking in 21 cities: six in Europe and 15 in North America.*

Am I aware of whether I’m being greedy?

Q: I have lived in Canada for about 10 years. During the coronavirus pandemic, I ended up spending a lot of time alone. At the time, I often experienced emotional turmoil, but I was greatly healed through Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s teachings. 

I’m currently trying to maintain a mind that is not disturbed by my environment or circumstances. The most helpful insight I’ve gained from Sunims teachings was that I should be aware of myself. I made a lot of effort to be aware of what my true feelings are, such as whether I’m being greedy, whether I’m trying to take only the good things, whether I’m blaming others for my problems, and whether I’m avoiding responsibility for my choices.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: That’s not awareness.

Q: Oh, is that so?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Of course not. What you are describing are thoughts and actions that occur, so naturally that there’s no need to be aware of them. At your level, it’s natural to be greedy and it’s also natural to blame others. In fact, it’s not only you; it’s all humans. Even if there are only minor issues, they blame others, try to follow their own desires, and are stubborn. This is a natural human tendency. You want to say, “I’m not a saint, so isn’t it natural for me to act like that?” Is that correct? (Audience laughter)

Q: Yes, it is. To a large extent, I think so.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: What you are saying is akin to asking, “Am I human or not?” We don’t use the term “awareness” to describe this kind of self-inquiry. 

When you question, “Am I being greedy right now?” upon the emergence of desire, it’s a subjective thought not true awareness. The truth is that I am currently being greedy. The truth is that I am thinking from my own perspective, acting according to my own nature, and blaming others. 

True awareness is an objective recognition of one’s state of mind, such as acknowledging: “I am currently being greedy,” “I am blaming others right now,” or “I am thinking from a self-centered perspective.” 

Asking, “Am I blaming others?” while blaming others right now cannot be called correct awareness. When you think, “I’m blaming others right now,” and you realize that such a thought is happening, it can be called awareness.

Q: That’s a valid statement. So I also defined myself as a person who blames others.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Good job! From now on, when you blame others, you should immediately recognize, “It’s my fault.” Instead of tormenting yourself with futile thoughts about events that have already occurred, you should practice by momentarily noticing the thoughts that arise at every moment by saying: “I am blaming others” at the very moment you are blaming others. Just as you would swiftly catch a fly with chopsticks, catching the negative emotions arising in your mind right now is what awareness is all about.

How should a practitioner view someone who is being greedy?

Q: However, I also found myself applying this thought to others as well. Especially when I see someone who is not aware of it, I see myself thinking, “That person is being greedy right now, but he is expressing it that way to hide it.” In this way I become aware of the state of others. As a result, I came to recognize that everyone has greed, and I began to no longer have expectations about anyone I meet. Is it okay to look at others this way?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: If you understand that you are a person who thinks from a self-centered perspective, you should also acknowledge that everyone else does the same. However, we often accept self-centered thinking in ourselves while criticizing others for being self-centered, saying things like: “You are an egoist.” Yet it’s entirely possible for others to think from a self-centered perspective as well. What’s the problem in acknowledging that?

When someone else is angry, recognizing it as, “That person is angry” is awareness. It’s not awareness to say, “Humans are beings who get angry.” There’s nothing to be angry about. So when I become angry, I recognize it: “I am angry right now,” and then I ask: “Why am I angry?” and I figure out the cause, which can help the anger arise, cease, and gradually disappear.

When seeing someone else’s anger, you need to understand that there must have been something that made that person angry. However, telling that person, “There’s nothing to be angry about,” or “When you’re angry, look at yourself,” will feel like a dagger to that person. The Buddha’s teachings can be good medicine when applied to oneself, but they can become poison when applied to others. Therefore, the perspective of practice should always be to apply the teachings to oneself.

Even if you talk extensively about your wife, I would not provide any advice on how your wife should behave. This is because there is a high likelihood that you would attempt to apply the Buddha’s teachings to your wife. In that case, the Buddha’s teachings can become a dagger. Speaking based on the Buddha’s words can act as a poison. Therefore, you should always apply the Buddha’s teachings to yourself.

Likewise, if certain teachings are constantly misapplied in a societal context for personal psychological healing, it can lead to a distortion of the Buddhist teachings. “Whether the world goes upside down or not, do not get involved. Only focus on your own mind;” if you interpret it in this way, Buddhism will turn away from social justice. This is why many criticisms are raised against Buddhism. However, the Buddha himself did not take this approach. He spoke about and did a lot of work on social justice issues, such as gender discrimination, class discrimination, and war and conflict. The unwanted side effects arise because the methods for healing inner wounds are repeatedly applied outwardly.

Likewise, you must also apply the perspective of practice only to yourself. This perspective should not be applied to others. When your wife is angry, you should empathize and say, “My wife deserves to be angry. Honey, I’m sorry.” When you feel angry, you should ask yourself, “Why am I feeling angry?” and see it as your own problem. You shouldn’t try to receive an apology from the other person. Hence, they must be applied differently.

Q: I understand. Thank you.

The path without suffering

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: When two people marry and live together, they have different tastes, habits, and values. So to avoid conflicts, you must acknowledge these differences. Acknowledging these differences is respecting the other person. Treating the other person like a king is not respect. Understanding is to have a mindset such as: “It could be that way from that person’s perspective.” Understanding is love. Love without understanding is violence. You might call it love, but most of it refers to desire. You try to do things your own way and call it love. If you acknowledge each other’s differences and think, “It could be that way from that person’s perspective,” you won’t feel angry. However, this doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything the other person says.

Since you married by mutual agreement, there’s no problem in divorcing again by mutual agreement. It’s not because of some sin from your past life. Just a moment ago, as I walked onto the stage, you all applauded and yelled, “Venerable Pomnyun Sunim!” Although you admire me like this, after this Dharma talk is over we have to part ways. Does parting like this cause suffering? No, it doesn’t.

Even if a couple breaks up, it’s better to break up like that. Even if your parents pass away, it’s good to part like that. You like each other but you can break up. Why do we have to become enemies when we break up? If you and I part ways today, will we become enemies? Conversely, just because we like each other, must we always meet? We can like each other even if we don’t meet, right? Likewise, even you break up, it can be done without suffering.

The very essence of attachment lies in thoughts such as: “If I like someone, we must absolutely live together,” or “If I dislike someone, we must absolutely stop living together.” It’s not that there should be no dislikes or likes, but there should be no attachment that what you want should be achieved. 

The goal of Buddhism is not to become a person who is as emotionless as wood or stone. If you have desires, go ahead and pursue them. However, don’t be distressed if things don’t turn out as you want. The reason suffering arises is because of one’s attachment to the idea that “things must be the way that I want.”

Similarly, suffering does not arise because of a breakup. If you understand that you can break up, you won’t feel any pain even if you do break up. You all know that no matter how much you like Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, you can’t live with him. That’s why it doesn’t hurt even if we break up. When you leave this hall, you might feel a bit sad, but as soon as you open the door and step outside, all regret disappears. In this way, you can break up without suffering.

Just because you emigrated to Canada, it doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically be happy. Just because you bring soybeans from Korea and transplant them to Canada, it doesn’t mean that they’ll become red beans. 

To be happy, you must understand the principles of the mind and manage your mind. Managing your mind doesn’t mean controlling it; it means that you are always aware of your state of mind. Then you can live without suffering: you can face death, separation, and failure without suffering.

It’s not a big deal

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: I went through many twists and turns to come to Toronto today. But viewed in hindsight, it becomes quite an interesting experience. There were several dramatic moments, but all of those have now become memories. So now I have more stories i can tell. But if I had not arrived here today, even after going through all those twists and turns, it would have been a bit disappointing. However, looking back, I acknowledge that it could well have turned out that way. 

Some of you here today came from far away, even driving for five hours. If this Dharma talk had been canceled, you would have felt a bit upset. But when you look back after 10 years, it’s really not a big deal. Even if this Dharma talk had been canceled, what would be the big deal?

That’s why, if you look back, nothing really serious happens in life. It’s filled with various twists and turns, and what we face at the moment feels like such a big deal: it’s a big deal if you go outside the lecture hall and the road is blocked; it’s a big deal if you can’t shake hands with me; it’s a big deal if you want to take a picture with me but you can’t; it’s a big deal for all sorts of things. We live between what’s a big deal and what isn’t such a big deal. So if you can understand that what might seem like a big deal is actually not a big deal, you can live freely each day.

I hope you can live your life with such freedom.

* Dharma Sharing: Ven. Pomnyun Sunim to Give First In-Person Teachings in Europe and North America since the Pandemic (BDG)

** Buddhist Monk Ven. Pomnyun Sunim Awarded the 37th Niwano Peace Prize (BDG)

See more

Jungto Society
JTS Korea
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International Network of Engaged Buddhists

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